A mostly character-based little oddity of an episode that leaves one thinking that this entire season could have been done in eight episodes instead of ten, The Bear and the Maiden Fair strews a lot of building blocks along its merry way, some of them haunting and many of them perplexing. We are nevertheless rewarded for our patience by the long-awaited, all-too-short and frankly terrifying bear pit scene and by Daenerys’ scaring the pants off the potentate of Yunkai in a stirring scene that brings her ever closer to embracing the inherent genius/madness of her House.
In the Riverlands, Jaime is finally well enough to leave Harrenhal and to continue his journey to King’s Landing, regrettably sans Brienne, who is left behind at the mercy of Locke and his gang of hooligans. In a rather silly move that represents this season’s first deviation from the books that has left me well and truly pissed off as opposed to clapping my hands in admiration at the show’s creativity, Jaime returns to Harrenhal for Brienne following a chance conversation with Qyburn, in which it is stated that Brienne will no doubt be brutalised for sport now that Lord Bolton is also absent from the castle. This seems a rather inadequate substitution for the books’ vivid fever dream that transports Jaime to the bowels of the earth beneath Casterly Rock, where the sense of belonging and wholeness that he feels in the presence of the shades of his ancestors, and of Tywin and Cersei, rapidly metamorphoses into gnawing, anguished fear as he is cast away from them into a darkness that is his alone. His sword, and Brienne’s presence at his side providing the only light, he watches helpless as his twin, whom he sees as the other half of himself, abandons him to his fate, the darkness around him rendered all the more terrible by the sounds of some beast out there in the black, its snarls drawing ever closer. ‘I mislike this place,’ Brienne quips, and he heartily agrees. It’s at this point that he wakes up and blackmails Steelshanks into returning to Harrenhal. Replacing such an important, and indeed beautiful, dream sequence with a slight tête-à-tête involving a creepy ex-maester just doesn’t have the same effect, and makes one wonder if the show’s producers are uncomfortable with dream sequences, a possibility that we got a distinct whiff of last season in the changes to Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying. All is not lost, however, as we’re gifted, perhaps by way of compensation, with the deeply moving scene when Jaime goes to visit Brienne in her cell before his departure. Brienne, valiantly fighting back tears on what she clearly believes may be her last night in this world, charges an equally-emotional Jaime with fulfilling the task she is now unable to, and to return Sansa and Arya to Catelyn. Jaime promises to do so with a sincerity that is simultaneously astonishing and completely unsurprising. It’s the best-acted scene in the episode, and only constitutes further proof of what we touched on last week; that the real truth of Jaime and Brienne’s friendship, as it genuinely is beneath all the wisecracks and insults, is something that runs so deep that neither of them acknowledges it, ever. Brienne’s voice cracking slightly as she stiffly recites ‘Goodbye, Ser Jaime,’ and Jaime’s staring awkwardly at her, then at the floor before leaving without a word is in itself indicative of how difficult it would be for them to put the nature of their connection into words. Despite the incredible odds against such a bond existing between an innocent, idealistic young woman and a shattered, increasingly pessimistic man of the world that is almost twice her age, each understands the other in ways that they will never experience with another human being, and for both of them, that doesn’t need saying. They both feel it, and know it, and that’s enough. This in itself is a possible reason for the elimination of a sequence that would eventually require Jaime to say ‘I dreamed of you,’ though it’s certainly not a good enough reason to prevent both myself and millions of YouTube vidders from tearing their hair out.
The bear pit scene itself is quite spectacular; the books’ lavish, three quarters empty auditorium replaced with a crude wooden structure as savage and casually dismissive of human life as the shouting and singing Brave Companions that are crammed around it, looking down into the pit. Brienne ignores the cacophony and faces the bear down with all the focus and poise of a consummate professional (wooden sword, dress and all), but Gwendoline Christie’s exquisite face reveals to us that despite Brienne’s innate bravery, she’s terrified. Things get a lot more frightening when Jaime himself ends up in the pit, the bear undaunted by the presence of two people and seeming only too delighted to get two for the price of one, and there are plenty of positively hair-raising, blood-curdling moments once the dear man realises he has no clue what the fuck to do next. All in all, it’s an almighty test of the viewer’s nerves and should be finding its way onto plenty of ‘greatest moments’ lists in no time at all.
Meanwhile in King’s Landing, both Tyrion and Sansa are absolutely miserable, a state that both of them will regrettably be trapped in for some time to come. Peter Dinklage is at his heartbreaking best, Tyrion’s attempt to pacify Shae blowing up in his face by virtue of its sheer Lannister typicality (golden chains? Tyrion, darling). He grasps desperately at the chance of having something like a normal life with Shae, even going so far as to assure her that any children they might have will want for nothing. While his devotion and desperation make us want to weep, Shae pulls out all the stops of her talent for argument to disguise how frightening and how moving she finds this, eventually reducing their relationship to something that it only is on the surface: a lonely little man with a whore he calls his lady, and whom he will eventually cast off when he becomes bored with her. Tyrion’s wedding is bringing Shae closer and closer to the Shae of the books who will eventually betray Tyrion in the most despicable, humiliating way, and while the show takes a risk by romanticising that betrayal, it’s also a good way to make Tyrion’s isolation and hurt all the more acute, which should make for terrific acting when the time comes.
On the other side of the soon-to-be marriage bed, Sansa, who is still red-eyed following her betrothal, has a fascinating girl talk with Margaery, in which the future Queen makes the case for Tyrion as a prospective husband. One could even say she makes the same case that every intelligent reader or viewer has made a thousand times in their head: that Tyrion, compassionate, loyal, sensitive, fiercely intelligent and terrific in the sack, would be an excellent husband to any woman who took the trouble to see past his height. Sansa’s reaction to marrying Tyrion and her behavior to him during their marriage is one of the hardest things for Sansa fans, in whose ranks I am proud to stand, to defend in her character. Let us merely consider that teenaged girls capable of seeing inner beauty are rare as obsidian and are usually of considerably greater intelligence than Sansa, and that it is difficult to blame her for being incapable of rationality when it comes to Lannisters, even one who has treated her kindly, since she has come to expect that all kindness is part of some cruel trick to get her punished. We can only watch and wait as to whether the show will mirror the agonising misery business of the books, or whether these two vastly different creatures will somehow manage to find some common ground in their mutual need to be comforted and valued.
Down in Blackwater Bay, right beneath the Red Keep itself, Melisandre and Gendry, whom we are relieved to see alive, bond unexpectedly as the Red Priestess tells the bullheaded bastard boy who he really is. It’s an unexpectedly marvelous treat of a scene; Melisandre hypnotic as ever as she declares both her and Gendry’s humble origins to have no bearing on the role they will play in shaping the world. Gendry’s eyes are beautiful in this scene as he looks up at the Red Keep, awe overcoming the fear that he knows he should feel, unable to reconcile his smallness with a great legacy that marked him before he even knew it existed. This also leaves readers of the books completely incapable of knowing what’s going to happen next, since the obvious course (Dragonstone) has not been taken, a very healthy state for us know-it-alls to be in. But as much as it interests us to see Melisandre and Gendry find common ground, however, we still fear constantly for his longevity.
A beggar queen no longer, Daenerys is regal, confident and a master of diplomacy as she demands the freedom of the slaves of Yunkai. The perfumed and rather pathetic Razdal mo Eraz is sent to bribe her with gold, the prospect of ships and a polite request that this Westerosi barbarian should not meddle in what she does not understand. Emilia Clarke plays this scene with perfect balance; terrifyingly beautiful, icily diplomatic in a way that would make Tywin Lannister squirm, and surrounded by her dragons, whom she entertains by throwing scraps of meat into the air and watching both the resulting catfight and the growing apprehension on Razdal mo Eraz’s face with delight. She’s scornful and unpredictable in all the right ways, but has a kind of confidence that weds well to her natural charisma. As she pleasantly observes ‘I have a gift for you as well. Your life,’ one feels, not for the first time, that Clarke’s interpretation of Daenerys is a mesmerising improvement from the Daenerys of the books, and that she will prove a formidable player in the Game should she ever get round to returning to Westeros.
Meanwhile in other Westeros news; cultural differences, guilt and fear are beginning to make their mark on Jon and Ygritte’s relationship, but not badly enough to stop our hearts glowing at this beautiful quote straight from the books: ‘You’re mine, Jon Snow. Mine as I’m yours. If we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first, we’ll live.’ This leads straight into Osha becoming increasingly hysterical at Bran’s desire to go beyond the Wall with Jojen and Meera, and we’re given insight into Osha’s fear of the North through a monologue that would have been moving if Natalia Tena had the acting ability to perform it convincingly. In King’s Landing, there is an electrifying scene in which Joffrey’s intention to chastise Tywin for not keeping him up to date on small council meetings does not have the impact he desired, Charles Dance thrilling us with his charisma as he effortlessly commands that entire hall, including the cringing boy on the throne, from the moment he enters it. Theon is once again tortured in such a yawningly predictable way that he and Ramsay make you want to get up and make tea. On the road to the Twins, Robb and Talisa have a pointless, boring and overly-long sex scene that ends with Talisa announcing that she’s pregnant. This is either going to be the source of a great deal of nausea or of a great deal of hope in episodes to come, depending on whether or not Talisa survives the Red Wedding. It’s probably the latter, since the presence of a Stark grandchild would only complicate things further, and Talisa surviving (by not attending), then simply dropping out of the story, as Jeyne Westerling does in the books after being accepted back into the Lannister fold, just wouldn’t work on screen, though we should also consider the possibilities of miscarriage or suicide (or both) once the Red Wedding takes place. Let’s face it: this idea is a mess. Let’s allow the producers to dig themselves out of it. And finally in the Riverlands, Arya Stark gets sick of the delays in the Brotherhood’s journey to Riverrun, announces to Lord Beric that the Red God is not her lord and master and, when asked who is, she replies, in a deathly whisper, her eyes blazing, ‘Death,’ before sprinting out of the cave and running straight into the Hound, the next stage of her journey to the Faceless Men about to begin.
A few good scenes make this episode watchable; the rest of it is tolerable merely because of the future its more action-less scenes will bring. Let’s hope that next week’s wedding will succeed in jolting things back into action again.